Obama and Israel: What Now?

By Benjamin Kerstein
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Since the Obama administration's major defeat in the American midterm elections, commentators have been wondering how the new constellation of forces in Washington will affect the president's Middle East peace initiative. Among hopeful partisans of the administration's efforts, the favored position is that little is likely to change. They point out that the executive branch, not the legislature, makes foreign policy, and that the party holding Congress, whether Republican or Democratic, tends to have little say in such matters. In support of this point, they cite the lessons of history, especially the experience of Bill Clinton after the GOP sweep in 1994.

Here, for instance, is Newsweek's take on the matter:

[E]xperience has shown that the composition of Congress does not necessarily determine Washington's approach to the Middle East. The most relevant example would be President Clinton's dealings with Israel during his second term. Though Republicans had a majority in both the House and the Senate, Clinton managed to force a recalcitrant Israeli leader into withdrawing from parts of the West Bank under an interim deal with the Palestinians. That leader's name: Benjamin Netanyahu.

And here, in a similar vein, is the Israeli pundit Akiva Eldar:

During Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, the tense relations between the liberal U.S. president and the conservative Congress did not help [the Israeli leader] push his agenda. After Netanyahu authorized the controversial opening of a tunnel near the Western Wall . . . Clinton dragged him to Washington for a sulha, or reconciliation meeting, with Yasir Arafat.

Both Newsweek's writer and Eldar conclude that, as the former puts it, "when the dust clears, [Netanyahu] can expect renewed pressure to resume the settlement freeze in the West Bank and get serious in talks with the Palestinians."

The latest news headlines, heralding a possible new settlement freeze, would seem to confirm this analysis, which is hardly without merit. When it comes to foreign policy, the leeway enjoyed by an American president is indeed considerable. And there are, of course, limits to how much Israel can afford to alienate any administration. But the argument also misses several significant differences between 1994 and today, differences that make any medium- or long-term predictions problematic at best.

The most important difference is also the most obvious: Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton. Indeed, where Israel is concerned, the contrast between the two men could not be more striking. Put simply, Israelis loved and trusted Clinton—and still do—in a way that they do not and probably never will love or trust Obama. Large numbers consider the current president to be openly hostile to Israel, and even those who feel otherwise have expressed little affection for the man or admiration for his abilities. Moreover, while Clinton worked hard to win the confidence of the Israeli people, Obama has made little effort to do so; quite the opposite, in fact.

Equally significant is the difference between the Israel dealt with by Clinton and the Israel that Obama faces now. In 1994, a left-wing government was in power in Jerusalem, and large sectors of the Israeli populace and establishment were committed, both politically and emotionally, to the Oslo peace process. Even after Netanyahu won office in 1996, Oslo was too entrenched to be openly repudiated. If anything, it had been sanctified by the recent martyrdom of Yitzhak Rabin. In addition, the pro-Oslo camp was more or less united behind Ehud Barak, a figure of considerable credibility on the security front. Opposition to Oslo from the Israeli Right, although it may have struck a sympathetic chord with some in Washington, could be easily triangulated, especially by a politician of Clinton's talent.

The reality in Israel is now completely different. Arafat's betrayal of Clinton at Camp David in 2000, the collapse of Oslo in the carnage of the second intifada, and the all but total lack of sympathy with or support for Israel displayed by the international community throughout the upheavals of the past decade have fundamentally changed the country's domestic consensus. However Israelis may feel about specific issues like settlements and borders, the overwhelming majority are unwilling to take the same risks they took in 1994, or for that matter in 1996. Moreover, they feel they should not be asked to do so.

As long as Netanyahu keeps himself in sync with this consensus, and does not swing too far to the Left or the Right, he is likely to be relatively safe from American attempts at triangulation. Indeed, he may be in a position to indulge in a little triangulation of his own, pleasing the center-Right in Israel and the U.S. by reacting sharply to Obama's criticism of building in Jerusalem ("Jerusalem is not a settlement; Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel") while pleasing the center-Left by acquiescing in another temporary settlement freeze.

Barring unforeseen events, then, it is highly questionable that Obama will be able to match Clinton's effectiveness in pushing his dream of a breakthrough agreement in the Middle East on a skeptical Israeli public, or for that matter on an American public whose sympathies are running strongly in Israel's direction. Again barring unforeseen events, Obama may find himself wishing for the kind of congressional support that Clinton never needed.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer living in Tel Aviv.

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